Tag Archives: László Bárdossy

Bálint Hóman is rehabilitated

Among the best-known Hungarian historians of the twentieth century were “Hóman-Szekfű.” The two last names grew together, something like Ilf-Petrov or Gilbert and Sullivan. They were the authors of a monumental eight-volume history of Hungary, published between 1928 and 1941. The first three volumes were written by the renowned medievalist Bálint Hóman (1885-1951), the other four by Gyula Szekfű (1883-1955). The last volume contains a detailed index. Although Hóman-Szekfű is available online today, I’m still thrilled that I managed to buy a set in the late sixties in Budapest.

Both men studied history at the University of Budapest, at about the same time, and both eventually taught at the same university. But the two men had very different ideas about Hungary’s place in the world before 1918. Hóman was more of a “kuruc” who favored an independent Hungary, while Szekfű was more of a “labanc,” a supporter of the liberal Hungarian governments loyal to the constitutional structure that came into being in 1867. After World War I Szekfű’s sympathies lay with Great Britain and the United States while Hóman became increasingly pro-German.

Bálint Hóman might have been a good historian, but as a politician he failed miserably and eventually ended up serving a life sentence for his political beliefs. In 1930 he accepted the position of minister of education in the Gömbös and Darányi governments (1932-1938) and later in the Teleki, Bárdossy, and Kállay governments (1939-1942). After the declaration of war he stood by his strong belief that Hungary’s place was on Germany’s side and disapproved of the Hungarian government’s timid steps to make a separate peace with the Allies. Hóman remained a member of parliament even after October 15, 1944 and then, with Ferenc Szálasi and the Arrow Cross leaders, fled to the West. He was captured by the Americans in Germany and sent back to Hungary. In 1946 the people’s court sentenced him to life imprisonment. One of the charges against him was signing the declaration of war against the Soviet Union. He died in prison in 1951.

Ever since the regime change first Hóman’s son and after his death a collateral relative worked assiduously to annul the verdict of the people’s court, whose proceedings admittedly left a great deal to be desired by normal judicial standards. We don’t know all of the charges that the people’s court brought against him. But the court that considered his rehabilitation and that ultimately, on March 6th of this year, declared Hóman innocent seems to have concentrated only on his participation in the June 26, 1941 cabinet meeting that decided on war against the Soviet Union. That is, however, unlikely to have been the only charge originally brought against him. Otherwise, all of the members of Bárdossy’s cabinet should have ended up in jail. But of the nine people present at the cabinet meeting, which included Prime Minister László Bárdossy, it was only Bárdossy, Hóman, and Lajos Reményi-Schneller who were found guilty by the people’s courts. All of the others, with the exception of Ferenc Keresztes-Fischer who subsequently lived in emigration, died of natural causes in the 1950s and 1960s in Hungary. One of them, a chemist, actually became a full member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in 1946. And so we must assume that the guilty verdict rendered against Hóman in 1946 couldn’t have been based only on his being present at that crucial cabinet meeting.

Homan

Besides concentrating exclusively on his role as a cabinet member, the court in the retrial heard evidence from only one side of the political spectrum. The sole “historical expert” was Gábor Ujváry, a historian working for the Veritas Historical Research Institute. Ujváry’s expert opinion on the events of 1941-42 reflected the views of the right. Here are a few examples. Hungary’s declaration of war against the Soviet Union came after the bombing of Kassa/Košice, a city that belonged to Hungary at the time. To this day it remains a mystery which country’s planes dropped 29 bombs on the city. Ujváry seems to be pretty certain that they were Soviet planes, which had been sent to bomb the Slovak city of Presov/Eperjes but got lost and ended up 36 km. away. In the Kádár regime it was more or less accepted that they were German planes because the German military wanted to force the somewhat unwilling Hungarian government to enter the war on the German side. This version was based on the testimony of Colonel Ádám Krúdy, the commander in charge of the Košice airport, who reported to Bárdossy that the planes had yellow stripes painted on their wings and fuselages, which identified them as planes belonging to the Axis powers.

Ujváry also claimed that only a falsified version of the transcript of the actual cabinet meeting is available, and thus Hóman’s “intentions” cannot be ascertained. It is possible, the prosecutor suggested, that he was faced with a fait accompli. Moreover, he continued, basing his argument on the historian’s expert testimony, “in those days one had two bad choices: either Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Soviet Union.”

Gyula Juhász, a respected historian who wrote during the Kádár period, had a different take on the cabinet meeting. In his book on the foreign policy of the Teleki government, he noted that Bárdossy had indeed falsified the transcript in order to minimize his own responsibility and that he left out those parts that contained comments that were against the declaration of war. Juhász nonetheless claims to have known that Ferenc Keresztes-Fischer spoke several times against the proposal and that he was supported by József Varga and Dániel Bánffy, while Bálint Hóman, Lajos Reményi-Schneller, and Károly Bartha “enthusiastically supported” the declaration of war.

The events that led to Hungary’s decision to join the war on the side of Germany against the Soviet Union remain murky, and determining culpability in such circumstances is always a difficult proposition. I therefore think that calling just one expert witness from the Veritas Institute was unacceptable. The court should have gotten another historian with a possibly different interpretation of the events. I also found it odd that the prosecutor spoke as if he were the lawyer for the defense. Overturning the verdict of one questionable trial by means of another is no remedy.

By now everybody assumes that Hóman will also be reinstated as a member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. However, László Lovász, the well-known mathematician and currently president of the Academy, said in a recent interview that if a group of academicians brings the question to the floor and if there is a vote, “the Academy must distance itself from the ideas promulgated by Hóman.” Historian Mária M. Kovács goes even further. She quotes from the Academy’s ethical codex, which states that the Academy demands from its members “the utmost respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.” Given Hóman’s rabid anti-Semitism, his eligibility is questionable, she argues. After all, he had a hand in the formulation of the first anti-Jewish law, which he himself sponsored in the parliament. When one of his fellow ministers, Andor Lázár, minister of justice, expressed his disapproval of the proposed law, Hóman called for his resignation. A month before the German occupation he demanded the deportation of all Hungarians of Jewish origin. In brief, she contends, he is not qualified to be a member of the Academy.

Sándor Révész of Népszabadság, a day after the court had rehabilitated Hóman, wrote that his proponents on the government side want to restore Hóman’s honor by this decision, but that can be done only with “the restoration of the honor of Nazi Germany, Hitler, the leaders of the Arrow Cross and mass murderers.” Right now there certainly seems to be an attempt to forget about Hóman’s real sins.

Mária Schmidt’s revisionist history of World War II and the Holocaust. Part I

Until now I rarely mentioned the name of Mária Schmidt, a historian, although she certainly deserves more than a fleeting glimpse. The more I’ve studied her writings the more I’ve become convinced that Mária Schmidt is the chief ideologist of the current government’s very controversial views on history.

First, let’s go back a little bit and take a look at her professional career. She received a B.A., majoring in German and history; her interest at that point was the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. At least she wrote her senior essay on the attempts of certain politicians to reconstruct the dual monarchy and create a multi-ethnic federation. Sometime in the mid-1980s she switched topics and began doing research on questions concerning the modern history of Hungarian Jewry. Her patron was the famous Hungarian historian, György Ránki, who for a number of years was in charge of the Institute of Hungarian Studies at Indiana University.

Schmidt Mária

Mária Schmidt / Source: 168 Óra

Her connection with Ránki was fruitful. In 1985 she received a three-year scholarship from MTI and the Soros Foundation. In 1988-89 she spent two months in Jerusalem at the Yad Vashem Institute. A few months later she was back in Israel on another year-long scholarship at Tel Aviv University. As soon as that was over, she received another scholarship to do research in Berlin. She was one of the young Hungarian historians who had plenty of opportunities to become serious scholars. They could travel, they spoke foreign languages, they had the opportunity to be in the company of scholars from all over the world.

These details of her early career are similar to those of other historians who today find her views abhorrent. It is hard to know exactly when Mária Schmidt discovered that she was in fact a right-wing nationalist and a revisionist, but by 1998 she became one of Viktor Orbán’s “chief advisers.” Her influence on the prime minister’s historical views is unmistakable. I’m afraid we can blame Mária Schmidt for the Orbán regime’s wholesale falsification of modern Hungary history. And, I’m afraid, also for the monument that will most likely be raised soon depicting Hungary as the innocent victim of German aggression.

Mária Schmidt might have been a serious historian in the 1980s, but by now her scholarship is highly suspect. A cursory look at her works reveals that most of her books and articles are of a popular nature. Works based on original research are hard to find on her long list of contributions. But how could she do serious and sustained work when she is the director of the House of Terror and two foundations? In addition, she teaches at the Péter Pázmány Catholic University, and she just received another job, currently in limbo, to create a new Hungarian Holocaust Museum dedicated to the child victims.

One cannot call her an independent scholar either because of her far too close relationship with the present government. In fact, a few years back a reporter from Népszava asked Schmidt about her lack of independence. Her answer revealed her unique view of history. According to her, writing history makes sense “only if it is about politics. Who is interested in what happened one or two hundred years ago unless we want to say something about the present?”

Those who want to know more about Mária Schmidt should read the relevant passages of Professor Randolph L. Braham’s “The Assault on the Historical Memory of the Holocaust” that appeared in Hungarian Spectrum. Here I would like to concentrate on an article of hers that was published in a book entitled Diktaturák ördögszekerén. It is about “Political justice in post-war Europe.” The short article is an apology of Germany’s involvement in the war and a condemnation of the Allies who after World War II “forced the vanquished states to take upon themselves the moral, political, and economic responsibility” for the outbreak of the war. The victorious allies without any legal justification brought individuals to justice. At the time of these political trials the Allies promised that all war crimes would be punished in the future, but this turned out not to be the case. Schmidt brings up the bombing of Dresden and the nuclear attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki as war crimes that went unpunished.

According to Schmidt, the legal proceedings against the war criminals, in Nuremberg and in other countries, including Hungary, “were political trials that served political purposes and therefore they brought alien elements to the jurisdictional system.” She finds it reprehensible that “the Allies themselves wanted to destroy the Nazi elite … instead of allowing the German people to get rid of its leaders who became burdensome [tehertétel].” The Allies already in October 1943 contemplated sending war criminals back to their home countries, which obviously Schmidt finds outrageous because she continues: “Similar absurd plans were contemplated concerning Japan.”

Although the article for the most part deals with the political trials of Nazi war criminals, it also contains telling sentences about Mária Schmidt’s views on the Holocaust and the Jewish question. Among those who received death sentences in Nuremberg, she specifically mentions Julius Streicher, editor-in-chief of Der Stürmer, an anti-Semitic newspaper, who was found guilty of crimes against humanity. In her opinion, his sentence was not justified. After all, he was not a public servant; he had no party affiliation; he did not kill anyone; and he did not order anyone to kill. He only incited and spread hate. So, Schmidt doesn’t understand how he could be charged with “an international crime.”

There is an even more puzzling sentence that concerns the Holocaust in this article. Her problem is still with the notion of “crimes against humanity” and that among these crimes the judges at Nuremberg listed the “Nazi genocide against the Jews.” She asserts that the Holocaust was “only one of the many crimes of the Nazi leaders.” This sentence is puzzling in itself because I don’t think that anyone at the time claimed that Nazi crimes consisted only of the Holocaust. The footnote that follows this passage is even more baffling. Let me quote it in full: “Therefore they organized the Eichmann trial in Israel that placed the Nazi genocide against the Jewish people on center stage. It was in this way that they called the attention of the mostly indifferent world to the issue.”

What does Mária Schmidt want to say here? That too much emphasis was put on the Holocaust but it didn’t really work and people became tired of hearing all about it? But then they, I assume the Jews, decided to hold the Eichmann trial in Israel in order to bring the notion of Nazi guilt into the forefront? This muddled passage might be the result of a confused mind, but there is a good possibility that there are other considerations at work in Schmidt’s head.

Let’s move on to Hungary and the people’s courts that were set up in 1945. What is Schmidt’s opinion of these trials? She hides behind the claim of an unnamed minister of justice at the time, according to whom “the goal of the trials was not to serve justice but politics and revenge.” Schmidt’s favorite victim of these trials is László Bárdossy, prime minister between April 3, 1941, and March 9, 1942. According to Schmidt, “with the person of László Bárdossy the court wanted to sit in judgment of the whole Horthy regime, the Hungarian upper-middle classes [magyar úri középosztály], and its political elite.”

Of course, one could spend a great deal more time on Mária Schmidt’s views on war guilt, justice, and crimes against humanity, but I hope that even from this brief summary readers will realize her revisionist take on Germany’s role in the war.  And although the article is really about the trials of war criminals, one can sense Schmidt’s ambivalent attitude toward the Holocaust and its significance.

Tomorrow I will take a look at another article in the same volume that is specifically about the Holocaust’s place in the modern history of Hungarian Jewry.

What happened in Kamenets-Podolskii in 1941?

It would be utterly foolish to attempt a thorough description of what happened in Kamenets-Podolskii (or, in Ukrainian, Kamianets-Podilskyi), today a fair sized city in Ukraine. In earlier times it was an important Jewish center of learning, but even in Soviet times it was a multi-ethnic community of Poles, Ukrainians, and Jews. Internet descriptions of the city’s history always mention that Kamenets-Podolskii was the place where “one of the first and largest Holocaust mass-murders” took place. They usually also note that most of the 23,600 victims were Hungarian Jews.

Luckily there are some excellent English-language sources dealing with the subject. Among them is a volume devoted solely to the topic: Kinga Frojimovics’s I Have Been a Stranger in a Strange Land: The Hungarian State and Jewish Refugees in Hungary, 1933-1945 (2007), which is still available through Amazon. Randolph L. Braham’s monumental The Politics of Genocide: The Holocaust in Hungary, 2 vols. (1994) can still be obtained in an abbreviated edition. In Hungarian Tamás Majsai wrote a book about the deportations that took place in July-August 1941. I learned a lot from Mária Ormos’s Egy magyar médiavezér: Kozma Miklós, 2 vols. Kozma served at that time as a kind of governor of the territory, acquired in March 1939, which was known in Hungary as Kárpátalja or, in English, Carpatho-Ruthenia.

Yesterday I wrote that Sándor Szakály, the new director of the Veritas Historical Institute, called the deportation and murder of about 25,000 people a simple “police action against aliens.” It was not part of the Hungarian Holocaust. Why is it so important for Szakály and therefore, I suspect, for the Veritas Institute and the Orbán government to disassociate the 1941 atrocities from what happened after March 19, 1944, when allegedly Hungary lost its sovereignty? The answer, I think, is obvious. No one, not even far-right historians of Szakály’s ilk, can claim that Hungary was not a sovereign state in 1941. And yet with the approval and support of Miklós Horthy, László Bárdossy, the prime minister, Ferenc Keresztes-Fischer, minister of the interior, and Miklós Kozma, one of the promoters of the idea, all agreed to begin the deportation of Jews who had escaped from Germany, Czechoslovakia, Austria and after 1939 from Poland as well. In fact, although the official record of the cabinet meeting doesn’t indicate it, the whole cabinet gave the plan its blessing. The evidence can be found in notes jotted down by Miklós Kozma, who was present.

One must keep in mind that the northeastern corner of Greater Hungary was an underdeveloped region with a very large Orthodox Jewish community who were, especially in smaller towns, quite unassimilated. They were the ones Horthy hated most and wanted to get rid of. Kozma’s aversion to these people was most likely reinforced by living in the area. There were places where there were more religious Orthodox Jews than non-Jews. So, already in the fall of 1940 he entertained the idea of deporting them at the earliest opportunity, which came when Germany attacked the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. When Hungary joined the war effort on June 27 of the same year, conditions were ideal for the mass deportation of the unwanted Jews, foreign as well as domestic, because Hungarian troops were temporarily in possession of territories just across the border.

Hungarian gendarmes collected the victims, who were allowed to take along only 30 pengős and food for three days, herded them into cattle cars or in a few cases trucks, and took them to Kőrösmező/Yasinia, still inside of Hungary. The first group started to move across the border to Galicia and Ukraine on July 14. In the next few weeks 13,400 people were deported from Carpathian Ruthenia and 4,000 from other parts of the country, including Budapest. The majority of the deportees were taken to Kamenets-Podolskii by Hungarian soldiers, who took over the job of the gendarmes. Once there, the deportees were left to their own devices. No shelter, no food, no nothing. The few Jews in town tried to help, but they themselves were poor.

Soon enough the conditions became indescribable. Yet more and more transports arrived daily. Finally the Germans had had enough; they asked the Hungarian government to stop the deportations. In response, Keresztes-Fischer temporarily halted the deportation of Hungarian Jews, but the others continued to arrive daily in Kamenets-Podolskii. It was at that time that the Germans decided to “solve the problem.” They simply killed them and buried them in common graves. Some were still alive when they were thrown into the pit. A few Jews survived and even managed to get back to Hungary, although the Hungarian authorities doubled the number of gendarmes in order to prevent their return.

Deported Jews from Hungary in Kamenets-Podolskii / Source: www.memorialashoah.org

Deported Jews from Hungary in Kamenets-Podolskii / Source: www.memorialashoah.org

Yes, at the end of August the deportations stopped, but the Hungarian government didn’t give up the idea of resuming the deportations, especially from this particular corner of Hungary. László Bárdossy announced that because of the German request they halted the action but they have every intention of continuing it when the situation in that part of Galicia and Ukraine improves enough to accept the deportees.

Kamenets-Podolskiii was a dress rehearsal for the deportation of over 600,000 Hungarian citizens. Gendarmes were employed to gather and herd the victims into cattle cars in both cases. In 1944 as in 1941 the Hungarian authorities were the ones who seemed most eager to get rid of their Jewish citizens, and in both cases the Germans were the ones who tried to slow down the transports because they were overburdened.

So, it’s no wonder that the current Hungarian government wants to transform Kamenets-Podolskii into an innocent police action against illegal aliens. Sándor Szakály and the Orbán government are a perfect fit, and I’m certain that his Veritas Institute will do its level best to whitewash the Hungarian governments of the interwar period and make sure that Governor Miklós Horthy, whom Szakály seems to admire, is portrayed as an innocent victim of circumstances. And since soon enough all school books will be published by a state publishing house, I have no doubt that Szakály’s version of Hungary’s modern history will be the “true and only one.” After all, he is heading an institute called Veritas.